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After months of high anticipation, the day finally arrives for my first Damnation Festival visit, one of the UK’s premier gatherings of extreme music.  This, the 8th Damnation, initially utilising Jilly’s Rockworld, Manchester, moving cross Pennines in 2007 to Leeds Metropolitan University, before settling into the current location, The University of Leeds Student Union in 2008. Testament the lure of the festival within the metal community, the sheer eminence of bands appearing, attracting Electric Wizard, [below] Pig Destroyer, Amenra, My Dying Bride and Belphegor, just a handful appearing in the West Yorkshire city as winter beckons, the two British bands making their second appearances on the bill .

Arriving early allows time to explore the Student Union in detail. The venue split over three rooms, the Eyesore Merch stage, smallest of the trio, enclosed, almost tunnel like, haven for intense and intimidating performances, the Terrorizer stage, a natural amphitheatre, raised area around the central space in front of the stage, a frenetic gladiatorial arena, gathering point to bay for and witness the spilling of metallic blood and the main Jagermeister stage, capacious , welcoming a more expansive, voluminous sound.  Add various very reasonably priced bars, food and drink outlets a large open area next to the entrance for merch stands, the Student Union proves an ideal venue for today’s proceedings.    

Reconnaissance undertaken, time to gather for Ravens Creed opening Damnation on the Eyesore Merch stage, their brand of good, honest Death Thrash metal hardly a slow burning introduction, instead a full throttle assault of the early afternoon senses, no apology offered, none required. A suggestion anyone not a fan of Venom or Bathory should head for the exit met with derision and static feet from the substantial crowd.

The staggered nature  of the opening acts, allows all three to be seen and just next door on the Terrorizer stage, Northampton / Milton Keynes four piece The Atrocity Exhibit further batter the brain cells with a rampant set of punishing, throat ripping grindcore intermingled with doom / sludge riffery before heading up the stairs, through the merch area and over to the Jagermeister stage and the first local band of the day. Hailing from the Leeds locale, Hawk Eyes don’t fit the metal purists agenda, their more rock / hardcore based melodic sound with cleaner vocals, far removed from the majority of today’s line-up. Anyone choosing not to witness the outfit previously known as Chicken Hawk today, missed a blistering sonic treat, the quartet battering their way through a set based predominantly around the “Ideas” album, all bulldozing riffs, caterwauling guitars and bludgeoning rhythms. Hawk Eyes doing their home city proud.

Now, all becomes more complicated, the three stages moving into full onslaught. Although having read comments from previous years of difficulties on occasions circumnavigating Damnation, I found few issues, of course the intimate nature of the Eyesore Merch stage meant late arrival unlikely to offer a reasonable viewing point and certain sets had to be left early to ensure suitable positioning, although such the nature of the festival beast.  It’s impossible to please everyone and while frustrating, also pre-requisite when so much excellence crammed into a relatively short time frame. Wodensthrone [below] a case in point, arriving five minutes prior to a 3.30 start to an absolutely rammed room, awaiting the mysterious, enigmatic North Easterners, their appearance and monikers exude Black /Pagan Metal mysticism. All display daubed vertical lines of paint both above and below their left eye, and bass player Gerádwine apart, members shaven of head, Musically, the first introduction today of keys adds to the deliciously dark atmosphere conjured by the droning, incessant guitars, pummelling drums and mystical lyricism.

I find Black Metal a relaxing, cathartic experience, having decided earlier on a double dose, leave before closure, obtaining a position close the front for Wodensthrone label mates, Winterfylleth, the Mancunians also afforded a packed auditorium. While possibly the least Black Metal looking, Black Metal band ever, only their choice of t-shirts offering an insight, once the tender acoustic introduction dies, they kick into overdrive and all becomes clear. While maintaining an overall, slightly, more tender approach than Wodensthrone, current album “The Threnody of Triumph” has become an ever present since purchase, Winterfylleth providing a spiritual, rather than demonic outlet. Rather than image or any other external influence, Chris Naughton Simon Lucas, Nick Wallwork and Mark Wood prefer their music speak forcefully for itself, the only sign of negativity from the audience, cry’s for an encore unheeded due to tight time constraints.

If Wodensthrone and Winterfylleth could perversely be called relaxing, Blacklisters certainly aren’t, the second local band producing the most intense show so far. Vocalist Billy suggests a jaded feeling this afternoon after an alcoholically hectic three days, two spent supporting Pig Destroyer in Brighton and London. Crowd interaction both verbally and physically plentiful as Blacklisters absolutely ripped the Eyesore Merch stage to shreds with their deafeningly disjointed noise rock and if today showed Billy in muted mode, god help anyone who stands in his way while full of the joys of spring. During “I Can Confirm That Ruth Abigail Holmes Is Not Dead and Is Planning To Make a Movie About Her Life” leaving the stage to prowl dementedly around the audience, before closing “Trickfuck” sees him once again at audience level, arm wrapped firmly around the neck of an enthusiastic fan, both screaming manically into the mike bringing everything to a suitably chaotic closure.

I decide at this point, a food and drink break required, even managing to chew the proverbial pork fat with J.R Hayes and Adam Jarvis from Pig Destroyer, before heading back to the more progressive tones and samples of Bossk although once again, a late arrival, leads due to poor visibility, an early exit and a literal re-charging of batteries before re-entering the fray, awaiting the arrival of Aura Noir. [above] I knew little of the Norwegian, self-confessed ugliest band in the world prior the festival, although a quick listen to album “Black Thrash Attack” earlier in the week pricked my consciousness and the highest of recommendations from someone stood alongside at the barrier, as the best live band he’s ever seen, further stimulated interest. For someone unaware of their history, disconcerting to see founder member Aggressor take to the stage upon crutches, before alighting a wheeled stool due to injuries sustained falling from a hotel window leading to paralysis from the ankles down. While the incident obviously restricts movement in the legs, nothing detracts from lightening quick finger work, as both he and former Mayhem guitarist, Blasphemer, lead the band through a frenzied speed / thrash blitz, providing the most superlative opportunity so far for full on furious moshing. This metal in it’s purest form, both sonically and visually, studded belts, wrist bands and guitar straps, visual support for searing riffage and fret scorching solos, a reverential homage to Motorhead and Slayer. 

Trapped at ground level in front of the Terrorizer stage, left no option to leave before Aura Noir’s exit, although I still arrive perfectly in time to hear My Dying Bride [Above] hit the first of their monstrous Doom enveloped chords and witness a thoroughly awe inspiring presentation of gothic based sludgery. Aaron Stainthorpe proves a wholly captivating front man, while movement is minimal, it’s also graceful and entrancing, difficult to tear your eyes away from his slight, yet domineering presence, face and body paint used sparingly, not garishly, enhancing a darkly ominous  persona to sinister levels.

Live, the depth of My Dying Bride’s pioneering sound is taken to a whole other dimension, stood to the left of the stage, I feel the full force of Andrew Craighan’s distorted guitar, capable of razing buildings to the ground, the foundations on which My Dying Bride are built. And so the toughest decision is now upon me, stay to witness the sheer majesty of Bradford’s finest, or leave and secure pole position for Amenra………… 

Initially, the choice of full headlining sets appeared between the satanic grandeur of Electric Wizard or gritty technical grindcore brilliance of Pig Destroyer, that before I had the good fortune to hear a review copy of soon to be released full length album “Mass V” from Amenra. [above] Totally ensconced into the sludge netherworld of the Belgium quintet, I head back to the Eyesore Merch stage determined to feel the full force of the live experience.  As the stage darkens and dry ice fills the air, basic half-light is used, creating a shadowy realm, the band striding on stage, each guitar quietly tuned, before volume allowed to flood in. Each aspect of Amenra revolves around a basic creation of eerie, un-nerving  ambience, rather than excessive technical outpouring, slow gargantuan doom riffs prevail, as vocalist Colin H van Eeckhout  stands motionless facing the rear of the stage, prior commencement a performance surpassing intensity, instead portraying a man exorcising his inner demons.  His dramatic lurches towards the drum kit and projected images behind, while screaming bloodcurdlingly into the microphone, plucking constantly to his side at it his shirt, an act reminiscent of self –flagellation, bestows an impression of exorcism upon those gathered. The enclosed confines of the Eyesore stage, only adds additional gravitas to the ritualistic nature of Amenra.

Van Eeckhout maintains his rear facing position for the majority of the set, on occasions kneeling as if in worship, during the latter stages revealing tattoos representing demons and angels, with a bold depiction from the small of his back to the nape of his neck, redolent the base and vertical axis of a gallows frame.  Not a word is uttered to the audience throughout, with band quietly and unceremoniously leaving the stage after a cataclysmic closure, although a cursory, thank you and good night, would appear grossly out of place following a presentation of extreme music destined to live in the memory of all present for many, many years to come.   

And so ends my day at Damnation Festival, travel schedules and the inability to appear in three places at once, the only disappointments from a truly memorable day of incredible music. Special mention should be made to the Damnation team in general, everything I witnessed running to the absolute minute with great sound around all three stages.  2012 may have been my first Damnation Festival, it certainly won’t be my last.

Review by Andy Barnes [photo of Amenra by Andy]

Videos by Callum Barnes
Photos by Emma Stone -